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Graham Taylor’s England: Part 5 – February 1991

We resume our recollections of England’s fortunes 30 years ago by looking back to February 1991 and the home friendly against Cameroon. It wouldn’t match the drama of the World Cup quarter-final thriller the previous year, but the goals would come from a familiar source…

Had a Wembley friendly been arranged between England and Cameroon in February 1990, then it’s doubtful if the attendance would have passed the 25,000-mark. But fast forward 12 months and this fixture was box office. Italia ’90 had changed everything. Not only had England’s run captured the nation’s imagination amid the rise of ‘Gazzamania’, but Cameroon had become many an Englishman’s second team at the tournament thanks to the evergreen Roger Milla’s iconic wiggle celebration and their famous victory over Argentina. England themselves came perilously close to being another victim during an epic quarter-final.

So it was that on February 6, 1991 Cameroon became the first African nation to face England at Wembley for the rematch. The attendance of 61,075 was well in excess of most friendly turnouts in recent years and evidence of the pulling power both nations now had. In a World Cup defined more by iconic images rather than classic matches, England against Cameroon stood out as a thriller. It was hoped the sequel would again captivate the audience.

An entertaining game would at least bring some cheer to a freezing crowd. Talk about how cold it was is not just some exaggerated memory of events 30 years ago. The temperature fell well below zero and plenty who were there describe it as the coldest game they have ever attended. On the same night, Wales met the Republic of Ireland on a snow-covered pitch at Wrexham and the following weekend a mere five games in the Football League would beat the weather – all played in the North-West – as the big freeze took hold.

The covers remained on until shortly before kick-off and thankfully the pitch held up well. For Cameroon’s players, this was a night for wearing gloves as they found the freezing cold as uninviting as England have the scorching heat when playing abroad.

Taylor’s Wright call

Less than three months had passed since England’s last full international, but plenty had happened in the meantime. John Major had replaced Margaret Thatcher as Britain’s Prime Minister, while the Gulf War was taking place. Minds were largely on that but English football had continued as before, save for ITV’s League Cup highlights being brought to an abrupt halt by the launch of Operation Desert Storm on January 16.

On the same evening, England assistant boss Lawrie McMenemy was in charge of a Football League XI that lost 3-0 away to their Serie A counterparts. Mark Wright and John Barnes were among the players to appear in Naples, six months on from featuring in Emgland’s World Cup thriller against Cameroon at the same venue. The relatively low attendance underlined the limited interest in such fixtures, despite the talent on the field. “I cannot understand why they played such a meaningless game,” said Arsenal’s Anders Limpar after appearing in it.

A man Limpar would later play alongside at Highbury certainly did not think the same way about England’s impending friendly against Cameroon. Ian Wright had been a latecomer to professional football and the Crystal Palace striker was now 27 as Graham Taylor picked him in the England attack for the first time. Having never played at a major tournament, Wright may not make it into too many all-time England XI selections. But if a team was compiled based upon how much it meant to players to pull on an England shirt, Wright could have led the forward line.

That passion and pride was evident in his autobiography, as he recounted the intense feelings as he was picked for his first cap. Upon seeing his shirt laid out in the dressing room, the emotion of the occasion would hit him. He wrote: “I could feel myself welling up so I took my shirt down and brought it into the toilets, sat down in a cubicle, shut the door and started crying. It was all too much to take.”

Wright was the first England debutant since Lee Dixon the previous spring, but three more members of the starting line-up against Cameroon had not appeared under Graham Taylor before. David Seaman, who made his England debut in November 1988 but would have to wait almost five years to become the first choice goalkeeper, was given a chance to prove he could challenge Chris Woods for the number one shirt.

England’s comeback against Cameroon at the World Cup had been aided by the steadying influence of Trevor Steven coming off the bench, adding balance to the side. Now he would get his chance to start against the same opponents, while another familiar name was back alongside him in midfield. Bryan Robson had not enjoyed turning out for the B team against Algeria in December, but he had done enough to prove to Taylor he was still worthy of a place in the side at the age of 34 – Taylor’s decision made easier by Steve McMahon and David Platt being ruled out injured. Robson would also once more captain the side, despite Gary Lineker having worn the armband so far under Taylor.

The manager continued to seek the ideal partner for Lineker, with Peter Beardsley and Steve Bull downgraded to turning out for the B team in a victory over Wales the previous night. A friendly would allow some opportunity to experiment with a Linker-Wright pairing, long before television bosses wanted to try the same thing. Such a partnership was rich in goalscoring, but it remained to be seen how well they could operate together.

Barnes was again given the opportunity to play in a free role, while the back four comprised of Dixon, Stuart Pearce, Des Walker and Mark Wright. In midfield there was a return for Paul Gascoigne after being dropped away to the Republic of Ireland in November. In the interim he had attracted negative headlines on New Year’s Day, when he was sent off for swearing during Tottenham’s home defeat by Manchester United. Taylor would resist some rather melodramatic calls to leave him out of the England squad as extra punishment.

Paul Gascoigne produces one of his last moments of skill in an England shirt prior to a lengthy injury lay-off.

But the manager seemed wary of the ongoing ‘Gazzamania’, telling the media: “What I’m concerned about is that when Gazza dies, Paul Gascoigne will still be alive.” The wording was morbid, but the sentiment clear – that Gascoigne the footballer should not become lost amid the national obsession with the phenomenon of Gazza that showed no sign of abating.

What nobody would have anticipated was that this was to be Gascoigne’s last appearance for England until October 1992. His next two appearances at Wembley would come in a Tottenham Hotspur shirt, with both unforgettable for very different reasons…

No Milla, no thriller

Cameroon would wear a curious hybrid of an Umbro and Adidas kit and it would set the tone for a night in which they did not play like a familiarised team. Even so, names who had come to attention the previous summer such as the Biyik brothers and Eugene Ekeke took to the field. Yet there were also a few absentees from their celebrated World Cup side, including Cyrille Makanaky, Benjamin Massing and goalkeeper Thomas N’Kono. Like England they had changed manager since the World Cup, now being led by Phillipe Redon.

But most attention focused on the man synonymous with Cameroon’s World Cup heroics not featuring. A reported row over appearance money led to Milla being absent. That, coupled with the negative approach Cameroon deployed at Wembley, did act as a slightly sour footnote to their Italia ’90 story. The romantic hero of the World Cup was now being portrayed as a mercenary, but he would try and limit the damage. “I have no argument with England’s soccer fans. They had come to see me and I’m sorry for them,” he insisted. The events would quickly be forgotten and public affection persists in England for Cameroon’s team from this era, especially Milla.

Gary Lineker goes for the spectacular.

Although most people in England still associated Cameroon with their World Cup heroics as 1991 arrived, their reputation had been dented a little by conceding six goals to Norway in a Halloween friendly. Although they had been without a number of star players for that game, the result appeared to have affected their mindset. At Wembley they displayed none of the cavalier willingness to attack that had made them so endearing the previous summer. They would barely trouble the England defence and Seaman had one of the quietest nights of his career.

England made the early chances, with Robson and Steven coming closest to breaking the deadlock. Debutant Wright’s performance was described as merely being “okay” by Taylor, but he played his part in making the opening goal midway through the first half. Steven whipped over a cross that Wright managed to head into the path of Lineker, who was duly brought down by goalkeeper Joseph Antoine-Bell. Yet again Lineker had earned England a penalty against Cameroon and he would be taking it.

As in Naples, Barry Davies was commentating for the BBC. He had perfectly captured the tension when Lineker held his nerve to equalise in the World Cup, but knew here that this game had far less riding on it. But he noted that all three penalties awarded England’s way against Cameroon were for fouls on Lineker, who he saw again successfully take the option of aiming for the centre of the goal as the goalkeeper dived. “The result is some sort of hat-trick,” declared Davies as Lineker added to his England goals tally. After going four years without being awarded a penalty, England were now taking them frequently.

Gascoigne was showing glimpses of his World Cup-self, with one typically confident run ending with Wright having an effort blocked. That corner led to nothing, but another one shortly after the hour-mark doubled England’s lead. Once more the team made use of a corner routine where the ball was flicked goalwards by Mark Wright. It seemed to be perfectly set up for namesake Ian to score on his debut, only for Lineker to get in there before him and grab the vital touch. The pair have laughed about it since, but Lineker wasn’t going to let anyone else claim the goal.

The crucial thing was that England led 2-0 and the hope was they could build upon it, or Cameroon would come out and try and make a game of it. Neither happened, which added to the sense of frustration for the shivering crowd. Gascoigne went off midway through the second half amid a recurrence of a groin injury, shortly followed by Robson making way as Lineker was reunited with the captain’s armband. Steve Hodge and Gary Pallister came on for their first appearances under Taylor. Hodge lost his footing when through on goal and Barnes forced Bell into a save, but little else happened in the closing stages.

‘A comprehensive win’

Taylor would describe it as “a comprehensive win”, as questions poured in about Cameroon’s reluctance to attack. “It would appear to me that there was probably only one side playing to win,” he said (leading to BBC interviewer David Davies telling him he was “being very polite” in his wording). Lineker would express his view that Cameroon “were worried about getting a good hiding so they were basically satisfied with 2-0”. It all added to the sense that the game had not provided the anticipated levels of entertainment.

England had deservedly won but there was little sense of fulfilment, nor a feeling that it had been a fruitful contest in terms of preparing for what lay directly ahead. David Lacey wrote in The Guardian: “Apart from the fact that the opposition wore green shirts, the exercise had little relevance to next month’s European Championship qualifier against the Republic of Ireland at Wembley.” It was hard to argue with that, given how different the playing styles were and knowing the Irish would be unlikely to show such limited desire to attack.

Jack Charlton’s side certainly figured in Taylor’s mind as he reflected on the Cameroon game. “Ireland might have beaten Cameroon by six goals,” he conceded. “They would have given them more problems because they would have knocked the ball over the top and then squeezed the life out of them. But I know that the media would crucify me if England tried to play like that. That’s the difference between being manager of England and manager of the Republic of Ireland.” Taylor evidently could see ways that England could win emphatically, but also knew a return to the direct approach that had worked so well for him at Watford couldn’t be contemplated.

Back in the warmth of the Sportsnight studio, Jimmy Hill and sparring partner Terry Venables entered into the spirit of the evening by jokingly wearing gloves at the start of their analysis. ” I don’t think anybody made a great reputation tonight but I don’t think anybody lost one either,” declared Hill of England’s showing. It was a fair summary. England had not excelled, but had deservedly won and there remained a sense of confidence around the side.

It was, perhaps, your typical sequel. A familiar outcome and the same hero would shine as before, but it would never contain the magic of the original. Yet realistically it was never going to, even if the conditions had been better and Cameroon had shown the same endeavour as they did in the World Cup. This was a friendly – although England did receive a trophy at the end – and the main thing to take from it was that another positive result had been registered.

Taylor had won all three home games so far without conceding, with Lineker scoring in all of them. The hope was that the good run would continue when it mattered most, in the Wembley showdown against the Irish on March 27. Whoever won would almost certainly qualify for the European Championship…

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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